True believers and sceptics – a decade of MPL. Flight Global talks to Victor Brandao of Alpha Aviation

From sceptics to believers, Flight Global talks to Alpha Aviation Academy general manager about the importance and rise of MPL.

As a would-be revolution in flightdeck training, the multicrew pilot licence did not get off to the best start. In 2008, nine newly qualified first officers who had embarked on Sterling Airlines’ pioneering MPL course were made redundant by the ailing Danish carrier. In the depths of a global recession, the fact that their route to the right-hand seat had been tailored specifically to that airline’s way of doing things made finding new jobs harder than for those who had taken the traditional route to their commercial pilot’s licence.

After years of debate about meddling with a tried-and-trusted method of training commercial pilots dating from the post-war era, ICAO launched the MPL in December 2006. The idea was to create a syllabus focused less on pure airmanship learned in a light aircraft and more on teamworking skills and a carrier’s standard operating procedures. A decade on, the method still has its sceptics – the licence is still not approved in aviation’s biggest market, the USA, and only a tiny proportion of new airline pilots qualify with an MPL. However, a growing cadre of mostly young and successful airlines have become true believers.

They include Air Arabia, the UAE-based low-cost carrier, which has been running an MPL programme with partner Alpha Aviation since 2010. So far, 235 students have gone through the course at the airline’s Sharjah base, including about 40 who have qualified as line pilots on Air Arabia’s Airbus A320s. According to Victor Brandao, general manager of Alpha Aviation Academy, the MPL works perfectly for an expanding, single-type airline such as Air Arabia because it allows it to expand its cockpit workforce with pilots who have been “trained by the company from day one”.

“It means we get exactly what we want, with tailored pilots instructed in our mentality, our procedures,” says Brandao. So successful has the MPL been that Air Arabia stopped external recruitment last year, sourcing all its first officers from the programme, and captains from its more experienced first officers. Pilots who have been through the MPL programme can usually expect promotion to the left-hand seat after 4,000h, and after just 3,700h they can start their captain’s training. This equates to roughly seven years after beginning the MPL process, he says.

There are drawbacks to the MPL. Because the syllabus is so airline-specific, once they complete the course, new pilots have to fly on line with Air Arabia for 1,500h before they attain their airline transport pilot licence that qualifies them to work elsewhere. On the other hand, the airline must make a big investment in the student. Although trainees are self-sponsoring, Air Arabia has to devote an instructor captain to fly with the new pilot for the first 100 sectors, with a third pilot as back-up for the first 50 of those.

More than 200 applicants bid for 84 places on the MPL programme last year, says Brandao, who this year expects a similar number to chase 60 openings. Under the arrangement with Air Arabia, the training company does all recruitment and coursework, handing trainee first officers over for line training after nine months of ground school, piston-engine flying for two months and a further 10 months or so in the simulator. Students represent 60 nationalities and most embark on the MPL in their late teens or early 20s, although some have switched from other professional careers, he says.

The UK’s CTC Aviation – now part of L3 – has become one of the biggest players in MPL since launching its first programme with Monarch Airlines in 2011. Since then, the Southampton-based training provider has added EasyJet, Flybe, Oman Air, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic to its MPL roster, with “hopefully more to follow”, says Anthony Petteford, the company’s vice-president airline academy. Virgin’s programme is “unique in the world” as the only MPL that leads straight to the flightdeck of a widebody, in this case an Airbus A330, he says.

Petteford maintains that the principles of the MPL remain the same as when the concept launched 10 years ago. “It’s the three Rs,” he says. “It reduces training costs for the airline, it helps with retention, and it’s about relevance – immersing the pilot in everything about that airline. It’s also about training them in the environment in which they will work, with the emphasis on CRM (crew resource management). Under the old system you could imbed some single-pilot mentality which you have to unpick. Under the MPL, pilots’ behaviour will be based on thinking like an airline pilot.”

Like Brandao at Alpha Aviation, Petteford admits the MPL is not for all. “MPL only works with an airline that has a really strong training department and can cope with an influx of cadets,” he says. “You also need really talented training captains.” Similarly, while an early commitment from an airline can be an incentive for a student, you can feel “nailed in”, he says. The Sterling debacle led to questions about an MPL’s transferability. Recent tweaks in the regulations have made moving to another airline easier if the original one goes bust or downsizes, he maintains.

This actually happened to CTC when Monarch was forced into a cost-cutting programme and decided its six MPL students in training with the company were no longer required. EasyJet stepped in to take them. Luckily, says Petteford, the students had just completed the very generic ground school stage, so it was easier for them to switch airlines. However, he believes, had it been later in their training, the UK Civil Aviation Authority would have considered the transfer “on a case-by-case basis”.

Finnair’s new MPL – run with the country’s Patria Aviation, and Finland’s first such programme – had unusual origins. Set up as a venture to offer MPL training to third parties, the flag-carrier last year decided to take the programme in-house to meet its growing requirements for flightcrew for its incoming Airbus A350s, explains Mikko Paronen, managing director of Patria Pilot Training. By supplying first officers for its A320s, the MPL programme will allow Finnair to switch experienced pilots to the widebody fleet, and provide a “new, alternative training path” for the airline.

Sixteen students – all Finns – were accepted last year with a similar number joining in 2017. Patria will conduct the first 14 months, with students moving to do simulator training with the carrier. For Paronen, having “over 50% of the syllabus in an Airbus environment is much better preparation”. In the USA, a would-be pilot can gain the requisite 1,500 minimum hours to become a first officer by flying a crop duster unsupervised, he argues. “The quality of training is more important than just gaining hours. Under the MPL, we train crew members. We do not train pilots for small airplanes.”

For all that, MPL courses remain in the minority. Nick Leontidis, group president civil aviation training solutions at the world’s biggest training specialist, CAE, says MPL “has not gained the traction that maybe people thought”, partly because of the commitment the airline has to make in supervised flying once the student completes the basic syllabus and also regulatory resistance in the USA. Although the Canadian company has delivered “a number of MPL programmes”, it is “still not a significant percentage of the cadets we are training each year”, he says.

That said, airlines are increasingly seeing the benefit of cadet schemes – a path to the cockpit that became unfashionable in the cost-conscious era that followed 9/11. CAE has graduated 2,000 cadets at Ryanair and a further 450 at EasyJet on non-MPL courses. Many airlines, such as JetBlue, are also adopting some of the MPL competencies-based philosophy without introducing an MPL, says Leontidis. “These programmes do include multicrew training with a bit more flexibility. They are becoming less of an either/or.”

In a review of the MPL’s progress three years ago, the European Cockpit Association noted that “after seven years, MPL is growing out of its infancy stage and is quickly becoming a shortcut to the cockpit at a lower price for the airline”. However, it warned about proceeding without caution. “We can easily fall in the trap of producing pilots who only function within standard operating procedures when the skies are gentle, but do not possess what is really needed to ensure safe operations: airmanship.”

The young pilot who can cope admirably in a benign airline environment but does not have the right stuff in a crisis is indeed a worrying scenario. But – although low numbers make any comparison difficult – a decade into MPL, there is no evidence that the safety record of flightcrew who have gone down this route is in any way inferior to those who have gone through traditional pilot training.